SSHAC live blog: Liberal theology, the social gospel, and the invention of social ethics – Gary Dorrien

Communications Staff — February 19, 2009

Speaker: Gary Dorrien

Title: Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary

Dorrien chose to focus on the social gospel.

The field of social ethics was created in the 1880s by proponents of the social gospel. The social gospel was essentially a social movement of the movements that took place in England.

Movements down through history, including the early church, did not have an emphasis on the social gospel. Only with the rise of socialism, did the social gospel receive the emphasis it deserved. In the social gospel movement, society became the subject of redemption.

Social justice became intrinsic to salvation. The social gospel happened for a confluence of reasons. It took root as a response to the corruption of the Guilded Age. It took inspiration from the social gospel movement in England. But above all the social gospel was a response to a burgeoning labor movement.

To change American society, the social society and Christian ethics had to be fused together.

Washington Gladden and Walter Rauschenbusch were two prominent leaders early in the social gospel movement.

Gladden developed the theology of social salvation and was the co-founder of various social gospel organizations. He spoke the language of moral progress to the end of his life. Every Sunday morning, Gladden preached on moral religion. Every Sunday evening, he preached on politics, economics and the social gospel.

Rauschenbusch served as a Lutheran pastor and was sent to the United States. There he was converted into a Baptist. When Rauschenbusch enrolled at the University of Rochester in 1883, his professors just pushed him on through, due to his seven years of training in Germany. He then enrolled at Rochester Seminary, a conservative seminary.

He started pastoring in 1886 and soon converted to the social gospel, which had just started a few years before. He initially preached born-again regeneration and it just didn’t fit, he said. In the midst of a searing poor-urban community, he saw that politics and economics were the pertinent topics at hand. So he preached on these topics.

Eventually, Rauschenbusch took a sabbatical in Germany to write a book what he called ‘revolutionary Christianity.’ As he wrote this work, Rauschenbusch concluded that the kingdom of God Christ brought includes social justice issues. Rauschenbusch was not able to publish this work at the time.

Rauschenbusch eventually made his living as a church history professor. Rauschenbusch picked up his former book, reworked it and completed it under the name, ‘Christianity and the Social Crisis.’ Rauschenbusch taught that each movement of church history missed the point of the kingdom of God: until the social gospel.

‘Christianity and the Social Crisis’ went through 13 printings in five years. Rauschenbusch became immensely popular as a public speaker and a wave of social gospel theology swept across America.

Rauschenbusch believed the Reformation was built only on Pauline theology, while the social gospel was built on the theology of Jesus.

He did not simply want to call the process of being the social ethic of Jesus to bear on society moralizing. This was too vague and abstract. Instead, Rauschenbusch preferred the term Christianizing, which he said was more clear and concrete. Rauschenbusch argued that Christianizing means humanizing in the highest sense.

Virtually all versions of the social gospel sought to replace capitalistic selfishness with something better.

Rauschenbusch argued that capitalism overdeveloped the selfish instincts of people and atrophied care and concern for humanity.

The social gospel had many faults and limitations. The social gospel helped build colleges and universities for African Americans, but rarely did it improve their social condition. The greatest failure of the movement was on racial justice. Early in his career Rauschenbusch took a stand against racism. But this did not last. In several letters, Rauschenbusch urged the immigration of more Caucasian Germans to have more men of the ‘same blood’ in America (meaning same race).

The social gospel did not die in 1919 as some have argued. It had an impact far beyond on that. The social gospel had a greater legacy than any other institution in liberal Protestantism.

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